Hello! And who are you?


September 4, 2009
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Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the discovery of Manhattan Island.

On September 4, 1609, Henry Hudson, employed by the Dutch East India Company, discovered the island of Manhattan. This year marks the 400th anniversary of that voyage.

Here is the rest of the story.

Amerigo Vespucci
Creative Commons License photo credit:
pedrosimoes7

Hudson may not have been the first European explorer who reached this part of the Americas. Two other explorers, Giovanni Verrazano, a Florentine, and Estevan Gomez, a Portuguese, who preceded Hudson by nearly one hundred years, each on their own voyage of exploration. Estevan Gomez left for the New World in 1524. He reached the Florida coast in January 1525. He traveled north and appears to have reached the coast of what we now call Massachusetts later in the year. In a letter dated July 8, 1524, Giovanni Verrazano addresses Francis I, King of France, Giovanni Verrazano describes how they reached “a very agreeable place between two small but prominent hills; between them a very wide river, deep at its mouth, flow out into the sea; and with the help of the tide, which rises eight feet, any laden ship could have passed from the sea into the river estuary.” Scholars agree that this is a reference to New York harbor..

Yellowtailed Cockatoo fan
Creative Commons License photo credit: Medicinehorse7

Even though Verrazano offered the opinion that these new lands had new land which had “never been seen before by any man, either Ancient or modern,” there was dense human settlement on the Island of Manhattan. Verrazano himself acknowledges this as he describes people as “dressed in birds’ feathers of various color,” a gentle reminder to us of what was lost over the centuries since the European arrival. Even though the custom of feather work making survived in North and South America, feather work dating back 500 years or even more, can only be found in parts of South America.

Oral tradition, written down about one and a half century later describes the encounter from the Indian point of view. A few days after the initial encounter between the Europeans and the original inhabitants of the Island, the former “proposed to stay with them, asking them only for so much land as the hide of a bullock would cover (or encompass,) which hide was brought forward and spread on the ground before them. That they readily granted this request; whereupon the whites took a knife, and beginning at one place on this hide, cut it up into a rope not thicker than the finger of a little child, so that by the time this hide was cut up there was a great heap. [T]his rope was drawn out to a great distance, and then brought round again, so that both ends might meet. That they carefully avoided its breaking, and that upon the whole it encompassed a large piece of ground. That they (the Indians) were surprised at the superior wit of the whites, but did not wish to contend with them about a little land, as they had enough.”  Dutch presence and settlement, both on Manhattan Island and in other parts of New York state, steadily grew over the next half century.

We benefit from decades of archaeological research in North, Central and South America related to the arrival of the earliest settlers. We know that people have been here for millennia before the first Europeans arrived. The origins of the word Manhattan may reside in a Munsee language expression, /e:nta menahahte:nk/ “where one gathers bows.” Exotic? Perhaps, but certainly no stranger than the fictitious anthropology report on the tribe of the “Nacirema.” See for yourself if their strange behaviors sound familiar to you….

As New York prepares to celebrate, it is good to remember that there is always more to the story. Digging around in archives and rekindling old oral traditions does, occasionally, bring the past back alive.

Dirk
Authored By Dirk Van Tuerenhout

As curator of anthropology, Dirk is responsible for the museum’s artifact collection and is involved in its temporary and permanent anthropology exhibits. Dirk is an expert in human cultures; he curates the Museum’s Hall of the Americas and specializes in native American cultures like the Aztec and Maya.

One response to “Hello! And who are you?”

  1. Raptor Lewis says:

    The ONLY thing that gets me about these explorers and their “Discoveries” is the way they treated the Natives!

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